On Human Dignity
One of the fundamental ideas in Halacha is kavod ha-beriyot which can be understood (if not actually literally translated) as human dignity. The Halacha views the protection of a person’s dignity as something of paramount importance.
One of the dilemmas which confront all urban societies is how to maintain kavod ha-beriyot in ever larger and ever more crowded cities where in many cases there are poor people who cannot afford shelter.
Too many people the homeless poor are unpleasant to see and are viewed as a blight which needs to be dealt with. The solutions vary from simply expelling them some place far away or housing them in crowded and unsafe shelters.
Too often the mere existence of the poor is seen as an infringement on the right of the wealthier classes to enjoy a certain “quality of life.”
That being the case, it would seem that kavod ha-beriyot is reserved for those who can afford it.
Furthermore, Abraham Lincoln once (supposedly) said, “God must love the poor, since He made so many of them.”
The irony behind these words expresses a painful truth: The poor bother us. Seeing them upsets us and we end up seeking to put them somewhere. That is the sad public policy in many cities.
Dignity as a Human Right
The mistreatment of the poor is not a new problem. Our prophets cried out against the exploitation of the people who exist on society’s margins. In this week’s parsha we are taught that the wealthy need to respect the dignity of the less fortunate. The pesukim that teach this lesson say the following (Devarim 24: 10 -13):
When you make a loan of any sort to your compatriot, you must not enter the house to seize the pledge.
You must remain outside, while the party to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you.
If that party is needy, you shall not go to sleep in that pledge;
you must return the pledge at sundown, that its owner may sleep in the cloth and bless you; and it will be to your merit before your God.
Mercy for the creditor
Take a moment and think about this situation. A person of means did a mitzvah and loaned money to a poor person. The time for repayment of the loan has passed and the loan was not repaid. In a society where property rights are supreme the creditor would be entitled to enter the debtor’s home and seize anything of his choosing as a security to guarantee repayment of the loan. The debtor’s obligation to the creditor eliminates any right that he might claim.
But the Torah says that this must not be done. The creditor must wait outside of the debtor’s house and ask for a security for the loan. Rabbeunu Bachya explains this mitzvah:
“You must not enter the house to seize the pledge – to take his security, neither the creditor nor an agent of the court. Behold, this is an act based on mercy. The Torah cares for the shame of the debtor when others are searching through his household goods….”
The Torah does not ignore property rights. But the Torah balances the right to be repaid against the right to be treated with respect – kavod ha-beriyot.
This is a right that can never be taken away.